The Trump White House has its own warring factions of senior advisers jockeying for power, yet that may pale in comparison to the camps gearing up to fight over tax reform, or already doing so.
These groups of industries, lawmakers and other interests know all about protecting their turf. And in this case, many of them want to guard against the elimination of lucrative tax breaks as the White House contemplates the outlines of a tax reform package.
“We’re talking about a high-stakes game here that affects every business in the country and virtually every individual,” said Michael Graetz, the former deputy assistant secretary for tax policy at the Treasury Department who now teaches at the Columbia Law School. “There are billions of dollars at stake.”
The huge number of players in tax reform will complicate any effort to overhaul the tax code. Cut just one break and lawmakers risk the anger of well-funded interest groups or coalitions, which inevitably try to position their tax goodie as the one singlehandedly responsible for boosting the economy or helping the middle class.
That’s why taking on the tax code in a meaningful way hasn’t happened since President Ronald Reagan’s landmark overhaul of 1986. The interest groups are just too deeply entrenched now.
Each group also wants to avoid becoming a target for raising revenue, as lawmakers think through ways to offset deep tax cuts. Or as Washington tax lobbyists often love to joke: If you’re not at the table for the discussions, you’re on the menu.
“The problem with the tax code today is that it creates winners and losers. The objective of tax reform is to level that playing field,” said Alex Brill, a former policy director and chief economist of the House Ways and Means Committee. “If it’s done properly, those who are winners today won’t be winners tomorrow. That’s why these guys are so interested in protecting themselves.”
So as tax reform heats up, here’s a guide to 13 key camps to watch in tax reform — with many more likely to emerge if a package becomes real.
Anti-border adjustment tax crew (a.k.a. Ryan’s nemeses)
Far and away the most noise being made, so far, involves Speaker Paul Ryan and Chairman Kevin Brady’s plan to hit imports with a tax while leaving exports alone. Known as the “border adjustment tax,” this idea has sparked the ire of large retail businesses such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc.; conservative Koch brothers and their industrial conglomerate Koch Industries Inc.; and the National Retail Federation, all of which bounded together to create an opposition group known as “Americans for Affordable Products.” Club for Growth and Heritage Action for America also oppose the the tax, giving the opposition added political heft.
Collectively, these groups have gone to great lengths, including buying commercial time during “Saturday Night Live” about a month ago, running catchy commercials, and targeting Republican lawmakers in their home districts during the spring congressional recess. Their message? From the gas pump to the shoe store, everyday Americans should expect to pay more if this tax becomes reality.
The exporters, or the ‘Made in America’ crew
Not everyone hates the idea of a border adjustment tax. Just ask the exporters. They argue the plan would spur a renaissance in U.S. business, thanks to an improved domestic manufacturing environment, and would fit nicely into Trump’s campaign promises on trade.
They’ve formed their own group called the American Made Coalition, which includes members such as General Electric, Caterpillar Inc. and Boeing Co. and are trying to get attention for their cause by arguing that U.S. companies get hit with unfair taxes for their products while foreign-made goods do not. The idea also has backing from Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, the powerful group behind the no-new-taxes pledge.
One point in their favor: This tax adds $1 trillion in revenue to any tax package, giving lawmakers money needed to pay for big tax cuts.
Cash-up-front players — real estate, utilities, finance
If it weren’t for the vocal and visible border adjustment debate, the fight to preserve business deductions for borrowing would be generating many more headlines. Some of the money to reduce tax rates would come from getting rid of the so-called interest deductibility in the tax code, an idea that Ryan and Brady’s blueprint proposed.
Highly leveraged companies in real estate, utilities, telecommunications and finance hate this idea. And Trump is certainly familiar with the desires of the commercial real estate world.
The BUILD Coalition — an acronym for Businesses United for Interest and Loan Deductibility — has leapt to their defense. These groups and players argue they have to put up so much cash to keep their businesses going that they deserve a tax break, and they don’t want to say goodbye to the century-old deduction for interest on their loans in exchange for changing their highly leveraged business models and taking on new partners.
Defenders of state and local tax deductions
The current House tax plan — which the White House may or may not use as a starting point — eliminates the ability of taxpayers to deduct state and local taxes. If the White House becomes enamored of this idea, expect governors, state legislators and their associations to squawk — not to mention wealthier taxpayers and donors on either coast. Cutting this provision would hit taxpayers particularly hard in high-cost areas like California, Illinois, New York and Massachusetts. “A lot of those states have Republicans members of Congress,” says one tax source close to the administration. “Asking them to vote for something like that hurts their state.”
The deficit hawks and Freedom Caucus members
So far, the Trump administration is not exactly brimming with fiscal hawks. Trump himself wants to cut tax rates, without necessarily paying for them in another way, along with proposing a big infrastructure package.
As the tax talks heat up, expect deficit hawks like the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and several Republican lawmakers from the far-right Freedom Caucus to make noise about this big-picture question of whether a tax package should add to the deficit. The fiscal hawks in the House, elected specifically to cut government spending, will want Trump to pay attention to the deficit as part of any tax overhaul — just as they did with the health care bill.
Charity and philanthropic coalitions
One idea contained in the Trump transition tax plan was capping itemized deductions, which could limit wealthy people’s ability to write off charitable donations. Charities have not been pleased by this idea and, through a groups such as the National Council of Nonprofits or the Charitable Giving Coalition, they’re positioning charitable giving as a way to help out the social safety net and create jobs through non-profit organizations. Don’t let the do-gooder rap fool you; they’re organized and will protect this tax break to the hilt to keep the donations flowing.
Guardians of mortgage-interest deduction
The mortgage-interest deduction is an expensive piece of the tax code that encourages Americans to buy homes — and that’s beloved by the real estate and mortgage groups. Most Americans have bought into the idea of buying a home as part of the American Dream and now rely on that annual tax break. You can expect the industry to capitalize on this sentiment if Republican lawmakers or the administration tries to even limit this tax break in any way.
A coveted goodie for steel, energy, manufacturers
Numerous business advocates and conservative think tanks see huge economic growth potential from letting businesses write off new investments the same year they’re made. Trump endorsed it as well.
Known as full, immediate expensing, this fledgling idea has a dedicated support group known as the CRANE Coalition, Cost Recovery Advances the Nation’s Economy. Its members include the American Petroleum Institute and Comcast and argue that accelerated expensing gives businesses more money to expand by lowering the cost of capital. It’s also a hit with manufacturers, telecommunications and aircraft leasing companies.
The lone caveat? The immediate write-off idea doesn’t come cheap, so the architects of the House Republican tax plan had to find revenue to offset the cost — meaning, this is another tax idea that costs more money (rather than raises it) in a hypothetical plan.
Senior citizen vote
Trump allies recently floated the idea of cutting the payroll taxes as part of a tax-reform package to give a big break to middle-class families. The major problem? This would scrap the way the federal government funds Social Security, raising the hackles of groups like the AARP, Alliance for Retired Americans and Strengthen Social Security Coalition — that is, groups representing older voters who historically tend to go to the polls. They will mobilize, big-league, if this idea gains any traction.
Estate tax haters
Perhaps the top priority for small business groups, such as the National Federal of Independent Business, is permanently repealing the estate tax. They argue it can hurt small business owners once they retire or die and try to pass along the business. The tax break falls on the individual side of the tax code, and while the business interests tend to be more organized than ordinary taxpayers in advocating for breaks, that’s not the case with the well-heeled crowd that benefits from the estate tax. That may be why Trump himself — a family businessman — has promised to scrap it.
Democrats’ line in the sand
A group of House Democrats has weighed in on tax credits they believe are essential for working-class Americans. They’ve introduced a series of bills to expand who’s eligible for tax benefits from the Earned Income Tax Credit, for example, as well as what qualifies for tuition help through the American Opportunity Tax Credit and increase the value of the Child Tax Credit.
These would be essential in any tax reform package, according to supporters. Backers include the top Ways and Means Democrat, Rep. Richard Neal of Massachusetts, and others on the panel with him. Democratic leaders are also on board, with Reps. Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer among cosponsors.
Infrastructure spending also ranks high on many Democrats’ wish lists as part of a tax tradeoff.
Lying in wait
More coalitions are expected to quickly emerge once the White House or the House plan’s details become public — perhaps after hearings kick off — or once the White House comes to some agreement about a plan to champion.
In addition to continued noise on border adjustability, Norquist expects groups to crop up around lesser-known issues —– such as asset sales used to reinvest in similar but more valuable property, known as like-kind exchanges and even taxes on marijuana businesses.
Trump’s kitchen Cabinet
The final group to watch on tax reform is Trump’s own informal group of like-minded CEO advisers, like Blackstone Group CEO Stephen Schwarzman, who have their own thoughts on the estate tax, corporate tax rates, capital gains, or alternative minimum tax — issues that affect both the CEOs and their companies’ bottom lines. Not only is this group powerful financially and politically, they also have the ear of the president himself, who likes to stay in touch his business peers.
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